St. Marks Convenience Feels the Sting of Undercover Underage Drinking Busts

husseinDaniel Maurer Mr. Elhage said he works nights,
since he can’t afford to hire help.

During a citywide undercover operation conducted earlier this month, the State Liquor Authority and the N.Y.P.D. caught 118 convenience stores selling alcohol to minors. Among the East Village stores caught in the sweep was a convenience store on St. Marks Place that was already facing previous charges. Yesterday, the owner of that store said he was being unfairly targeted.

According to the State Liquor Authority, the following stores sold alcohol to undercover volunteer decoys between Nov. 16 and 18: St. Marks Convenience Inc. (31 St. Marks Place), Ave A Deli & Grocery (123 Avenue A), Anwar Grocery (106 Avenue B), Yoo’s Convenience (50 Second Avenue), and C & B Grocery (248 East 14th Street). The businesses face fines of anywhere from $2,500 (the starting penalty for a first offense) to $10,000 per violation.

One of those stores, St. Marks Convenience, is no stranger to the S.L.A. According to documents obtained from the authority, the store is accused of selling to minors in May, June, July, and October of this year, and may face the cancellation or revocation of its license during a hearing set for Dec. 19.

Hussein Elhage, who said that he has owned the store since 1990, admitted that he and his staff made the sales, but said that he was unfairly targeted during busy times, when he was too preoccupied to exercise his usual degree of diligence.

hussein2Daniel Maurer Signs posted on the beer coolers.

Mr. Elhage, 56, said that he was the father of three teenagers as well as a nine-year-old, and that he discouraged underage drinkers. “When I see anybody who is underage [trying to buy alcohol] I say, ‘Go bring your father or go to the Ninth Precinct and get the police officer and let them buy it.’” As a result, said Mr. Elhage, minors have tried to outright steal from him. One such incident occurred on July 12, when according to a police report a teenage girl was arrested for stealing a can of Four Loko and a Starbucks coffee drink from the store. In March, Mr. Hussein filed another report complaining that another underage person had stolen a can of Four Loko and a can of beer.

However, Mr. Elhage admitted that on one occasion his son, while trying to expedite a backlog of customers, sold to an underage decoy without asking for ID. On another occasion, he said, Mr. Elhage took a woman’s word that she was 22 years old without checking her ID, only to find out later that she was a decoy. He said, “When I found out, I said, ‘These days, you can’t trust nobody.’”

hussein3Daniel Maurer More signage

On a third occasion, he said, an older man (an undercover officer, he later came to believe) paid for a beer that a younger companion (the decoy, he believed) then grabbed and took out of the store before Mr. Elhage had a chance to ask for ID.

“We are very alert, very responsible,” said Mr. Elhage, “but sometimes things happen. Everybody should put themselves in our position and see how they feel.”

The shopkeeper said that the thousands of dollars in fines would pull a leg out from under him financially. “We are suffering,” he said. “We are not making money. It’s the same as if you have internal bleeding – nobody is making money these days.”

Meanwhile, the State Liquor Authority shows no sign of relenting the ongoing operations that in August caught 123 convenience stores – including a dozen in the East Village – selling to minors.

“Preventing the sale of alcohol to minors is a top priority for the State Liquor Authority,” said the Authority’s chairman Dennis Rosen in a press release touting the undercover work. “These large scale enforcement efforts will continue to be a part of our proactive measures to prevent alcohol abuse among our youth.”